Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Russia and the Return of Geopolitics in Korea

In his 2014 Foreign Affairs article "The Return of Geopolitics", Walter Russell Mead asserted that whereas the US has been concerned with ideas of "global governance" since the end of the Cold War, powers such as China, Iran and Russia remain focused on traditional questions of territory and power. 

The term "geopolitics" is frequently used in conjunction with Russia's foreign policy. It is, however, often limited to the context of Russian activities in the post-Soviet space. Indeed, much of Russia's current foreign policy is driven by a desire to re-assert influence in countries and regions that were formerly under Soviet control.

Despite not having been a part of the former Soviet empire, the Korean Peninsula offers a unique chance to glean the dichotomy between the US's supposed concentration of "global governance" and the Russian preoccupation with the issue of territory. Much of the international focus on the DPRK has been based on stemming North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. The primary framework through which the international community has worked to achieve this is through international bodies such as the United Nations, buttressed by international agreements such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Nevertheless, Russia's geopolitical interests have a long history in Korea. Those interests, it seems, are making a comeback. Russia, however, is forced to contend with a divided Korea that makes the pursuit of its geopolitical designs more difficult.

The establishment of a Korean state that is friendly toward Russia, but which is not particularly aligned with one state, has constituted a basic Russian policy toward Korea since the end of the 19th century. The historic roots of Russia's ambitions on the Korean Peninsula date from approximately 1860, during the reign of Aleksandr II. Russian designs for Korea entered a period of abeyance during the Japanese occupation of Korea. After the end of the Second World War, however, the USSR revived its Korea policy based on three fronts: advancing the Soviet Union's national security, increasing the scope of the communist camp, and keeping Russia in the realm of great power politics.

Following the "hot" phase of the Cold War, which included a rupture in Sino-Soviet relations, the balance between China, the United States and the USSR became more-or-less balanced. Nevertheless, the rapprochement between Japan and South Korea following the 1965 normalization agreement between Seoul and Tokyo led to another major shift in the USSR's geopolitical position in Northeast Asia. While the US's alliance system in Asia was based on a series of bilateral agreements between Washington and other individual states, rather than a collective security system such as NATO, Japan-South Korea normalization led to the formation of a Japan-South Korea-US network. In Asia, Russia was unable to form a network of alliances or collective security similar to the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe. As a result, in order to securitize its Far Eastern regions, in 1980 Russia embarked on a program of tripling its direct investment in the Russian Far East's military position, compared with defense spending in the Far East in 1978. Nevertheless, the USSR was unable to undertake such a program, as at this time the first cracks in the Soviet socio-economic system began to appear [1].

Upon assuming leadership of the USSR in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev hoped to use North Korea as a sort of lightning rod to expand the Soviet Union's influence in East Asia more broadly. In addition to the narrower imperatives of East Asia, Gorbachev's policy of outreach to North Korea was also in part based on his attempts at shoring up cooperation with the broader global communist bloc, including those countries that had kept their distance from the USSR. During the final days of the Soviet era, however, a reform-minded Gorbachev viewed South Korea, having recently experienced a massive economic transformation in the so-called "Miracle on the Han", as a valuable partner for the USSR. In particular, Gorbachev viewed South Korea as a potential source of investment. Yet in the chaotic aftermath of the USSR's collapse, Russian leaders (especially conservative politicians) became increasingly disappointed with the fact that ROK-Russia ties didn't provide the material benefits as had previously been hoped. Boris Yeltsin, therefore, began to move Russia back to a more equidistant position between North and South Korea.  

Moscow's policy of maintaining balanced relations with both Koreas has continued under the Putin government. Russia's attempts at maintaining balanced relations with North and South Korea, however, could end up backfiring, as happened with the USSR's attempts at maintaining balanced relations with both Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1970's. With this in mind, Russia ultimately hopes for a reunified peninsula. Moscow, however, approaches unification with a mindset of cautious optimism.

According to a report published by the Russian committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), two of Russia's main interests insofar as Korean crisis management is concerned, is for Korean unification to happen gradually, rather than suddenly, and for Korea not necessary to fall under the geopolitical auspices of Russia, but rather for Korea not to come under the geopolitical fold of one single country.

Ideally, unification would occur peaceably. Russia, however, remains wary of the possibility of a large-scaled armed confrontation. By extension, Russia also fears that the aftermath of armed conflict would produce a unified Korean Peninsula with US troops directly on its borders. This makes Russia's geopolitical situation in East Asia not unlike Russia's circumstances in Europe, where the positioning of large-scale military powers increases the possibility of confrontation. In contrast, perhaps the most critical difference between Russia's geopolitical interests toward the Korean Peninsula and other regions on the Russian periphery is that whereas in other areas Russia attempts to create a network of pro-Moscow states on its borders, but as far as Korea is concerned, the most pressing issue for Russia is not creating a buffer state, but rather creating investment opportunities for its Far Eastern regions.

As Russia continues its so-called "turn to the East," the Korean Peninsula will likely hold an increasingly important position in Russia's geopolitical designs. At present, Russia is limited in its ability to exercise geopolitical influence over Korea. The peninsula remains divided, with the northern and Southern halves generally aligned with China and the US, respectively. Should the overall situation in Korea change in any notable way, however, Russia, based on its long-standing interests, will be desirous to take advantage of any major shifts in North and/or South Korea's political circumstances. By striving for closer ties with both North and South Korea, Russia seeks to be primed to, at the very least, not be left out in the cold in any ensuing geopolitical scramble for influence in a reunified Korea.   

[1] А. Б Волынчук "Россия в Северо-Восточной Азии: вектор геополитических интересов"

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Problems with Trump’s Tweeting

Photo: Reuters

President Donald Trump sure loves Twitter. Social media, including Twitter, if used properly and well, can be valuable tools for world leaders. If not, these tools can cause a lot of headaches, if not something worse, for them. Trump’s fascination with and addiction to Twitter seems to fall in the latter category.

Sure, Trump does use Twitter to highlight his meetings, new legislation and executive orders, and his pet political causes. Unfortunately, he also uses Twitter for a whole lot more than that. He fairly constantly wields his Twitter account to demonize the left, the media, and other domestic opponents. Trump’s recent and much-publicized spat with Morning Joe’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski is only the latest example of his reckless use of Twitter. This fiasco is fairly instructive of the perils of Trump using twitter for ill-conceived ends.

So what happened? It’s sufficient to say that Trump, on Thursday, irked by what he perceived as unfair reporting and analysis by Scarborough and Brzezinski, tweeted unflattering remarks about both Joe and Mika, including a misogynist one on Mika, possibly lied about an interaction between him and Joe and Mika, and criticized Morning Joe’s television ratings. (See here and here.) Trump’s tweets, as many do, received a firestorm of attention, to the point that they were discussed and defended in the daily press briefing by Sarah Huckabee Sanders—which caused another round of scorn heaped on the White House. And as for Scarborough and Brzezinski, they kept the story alive by jointly penning an editorial in The Washington Post and debating and criticizing Trump’s tweets the next day on their show. Never to let the other side get the last punch, Trump has continued to tweet about Scarborough and Brzezinski, thereby giving further life to a decidedly negative story that can only hurt himself politically. For instance, he tweeted Friday and Saturday about Joe and Mika and their show, going so far as to call Brzezinski “dumb as a rock.”

Trump thinks he’s defending himself and picking up political points in the process, by putting the “liberal media” in its place. But this is extraordinarily short-sighted. His incendiary tweets, and the Morning Joe debacle in particular, come at a great cost—to him, his political standing and agenda, US institutions, and American society more generally.

So what’s the fallout of his Twitter feud with Morning Joe? Here are several things that immediately come to mind.

1. It highlights the incompetence of not only Trump, but his staff. After all, what kind of a president engages in name calling with journalists on social media? This behavior is usually observed from tweens these days; we don’t expect this from the leader of the so-called free world. As a result, it also renews speculation—as wild it may be—about his mental state and his fitness for the presidency. Additionally, Huckabee Sanders willingly defended the indefensible. In her press briefing, she defended Trump’s tweets and then placed blame on “the liberal media” for constantly criticizing Trump.

2. Attacking the media and journalists only incentivizes them to press harder on Trump regarding his shady business deals, nepotism in the White House, Russiagate, and so on, which only makes life more difficult—not easier—for him.

3. The Morning Joe tweets caused Republican and Democratic Congresspersons to unite publicly in their frustrations with Trump’s coarse rhetoric—taking this situation out of the land of partisanship. Hence, Trump suffered political blowback from the right and left.

4. Did Trump try to coerce, or even blackmail, journalists? That’s exactly what Joe and Mika stated in their Friday Morning Joe discussion of Trump’s tweets. Reportedly, Trump offered to pull some strings to scrap a sordid story on Scarborough and Brzezinski from being published in the National Enquirer. If true, this raises all sorts of questions—legal, as well as moral and ethical. Moreover, does this mean that Trump has another media outlet (besides Fox News) doing his bidding? And was he behind the infamous 2016 Enquirer story that linked Senator and then-GOP presidential contender Ted Cruz’s father to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy?

5. Why is Trump so preoccupied with domestic critics--in fact much more than with the host of complex national security threats and issues the US faces nowadays? Is it simply because he’s a narcissist? Or does he have massive political skeletons in his closet that he wishes remain hidden?

6. Trump’s comments on Brzezinski are likely another window into his thinking about women. Throughout his public life, Trump has a long history making of harsh, misogynist remarks about women—about their intellect, their looks, etc. He’s brushed them off, saying that they were largely made for entertainment purposes. That, in itself, is rather revealing. And his tweets on Mika also expose a very weird obsession with women and bleeding. This first came to light with his post-debate comments on Megyn Kelly. I’m not sure and don’t feel qualified to say what we should make of Trump’s bizarre bleeding comments. That said, I encourage you to look at two recent articles on this topic from The Atlantic and Daily Beast.

7. Trump’s persistent needling and attacking of the media only entrenches preexisting negatively held beliefs about “the liberal media” and “liberal journalists” within his base. Regardless of Trump, maybe these folks would never watch CNN or MSNBC or read The Washington Post or The New York Times. Perhaps. But Trump is ensuring that they never will. But what’s worse, he’s pushing his followers toward pro-Trump fringe outlets like Infowars and Breitbart, which only further fuels the polarization and extremism endemic in US politics today.

This post, so far, has focused only on the domestic repercussions of Trump’s rash, rude, and often vulgar tweets. The sad reality is that Trump’s tweeting also has foreign policy implications. Leftist talking heads and social media types lament that Trump’s tweets could trigger an international war. You may recall his brash, at times unprovoked, tweets on Taiwan, China, North Korea, etc. and the angry responses from officials from these countries, and so it seems there’s a grain of truth in this worry. But wars over Twitter are highly unlikely. The good news is that even if Trump is as dopey as he sometimes seems—and that’s not a given, mind you—other world leaders, by and large, aren’t, especially those in other great power nations. And they aren’t likely to go to war, expending blood and treasure and domestic political capital, over idle words on social media.

Still, that doesn’t mean that Trump’s tweets—yes, even his domestic-focused ones—don’t have a foreign policy consequences. Indeed, Nada Bakos, a former US intelligence officer, recently wrote a thorough, outstanding piece for The Washington Post on this very topic. Bakos argues that Trump’s Twitter account provides foreign actors with ample information—information that’s free, requires almost zero effort to procure, and can be accessed and analyzed in real time.

In particular, she writes: “Trump’s tweets offer plenty of material for analysis. His frequent strong statements in reaction to news coverage or events make it appear as if he lacks impulse control. In building a profile of Trump, an analyst would offer suggestions on how foreign nations could instigate stress or deescalate situations, depending on what type of influence they may want to have over the president.” Further, Trump’s Twitter reveals that he’s quick to anger, easy to flatter, and sensitive about the ongoing Russia investigations. What does this all mean? Put simply, Bakos claims, Trump is actively signaling to the world how foreign actors can gain leverage over him, and by extension the US. He’s telling the world the various pressure points—whether on policy issues or his thin-skinned personality—they can wield to their advantage.

Moreover, even banal things on Trump’s Twitter page can aid foreign actors. For instance, Bakos writes: “Analysts can glean information about Trump’s sleep patterns from the time of day or night when he tweets, showing which topics keep him up, his stress level and his state of mind. Twitter also often reveals what Trump is watching on TV and when, as well as what websites he turns to for news and analysis. Knowing this can be useful for foreign governments when they are planning media events or deciding where to try to seek coverage of their version of world events.”

This is deeply concerning. Trump is placing the US in a potentially horrible position. Not only could Trump be compromised by Russia as a result of possible shenanigans involving him and his staff, he might well be a disadvantaged and disempowered president globally because of his near-constant tweeting. Trump has created an environment in which he can be manipulated to the detriment of US national security, political, and economic interests. Even more troubling, there's no easy solution to this mess. Yes, his staffers want him to forgo his personal Twitter account and let them post as needed using the official @POTUS Twitter handle. But Trump firmly believes he receives tangible political benefits from avoiding the mainstream media and communicating directly to his millions of followers through social media. And another obstacle here is Trump's prickly, obstinate personality: he's not one to back down easily or admit defeat, even if the stakes are small, like the use of his personal Twitter account. Given these variables, it's difficult to envision him changing his Twitter habits. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Is Trump's Foreign Policy Anti-Obama?

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, recently tweeted a provocative take on Trump foreign policy. He wrote: "NATO. Paris Accords. Saudi Arabia. Cuba. Trump foreign policy has only one guiding principle: do the opposite of Obama, no matter the cost." Of course, his is a partisan take. That said, it makes for an interesting debate topic, as it does at least have the veneer of truth, right? He's only been in office a few months, yet Trump has already targeted several of Obama's key foreign policies. So, with that in mind, I asked my CWCP colleague Yohanes Sulaiman for his thoughts on Murphy's tweet. His response is below, and mine follows afterward.  

Yohanes Sulaiman: Trump as anti-Obama?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that he is against a lot of stuff that Obama was for, like the Paris Accords. But at the same time, Trump is basically responding to what his main constituents, those in the rust belt who voted for him, think and want politically, economically, and so on. His supporters are against trade deals and the Paris Accords, for example, because they fear both are job killers. Like it or not, that's what many people in the so-called flyover states believe.

To simply call whatever Trump does as anti-Obama risks ignoring the real and valid concerns of Trump's base and that, in turn, could hand Trump another term in 2020 on a silver platter.

Brad Nelson: At first glance, there does seem to be an anti-Obama bent to Trump's foreign policy. After all, there have been a number of shifts or reversals, on a wide range of issues, from the Obama era: climate change, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Europe (NATO/EU), and so on. I suspect there are a number of motives in play; it's not as simple as an anti-Obama reflexive impulse. Here are a few guesses.

First, Trump could genuinely believe that Obama foreign policy was misguided, that he sincerely thinks Obama was dragging the US in a wrong direction globally and regionally on security, diplomatic and economic affairs.

Second, he might seek to limit the successes and preferably damage Obama's legacy because of a personal beef with Obama. It's possible. Some say jealously is a factor: that he can’t get past the fact his predecessor was so beloved by the media and a considerable swath of the American public. Others point to personal animosity. For instance, if Trump really sees the ongoing Russiagate negative headlines and investigations as a conspiracy driven by Obama and his staff (like Susan Rice) and Obama holdovers in the US government, it would make sense that he has a big axe to grind against Obama himself. Rolling back or watering down his purported "successes,” like the Paris Accords, the opening to Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal, among other things, are viable ways to spite Obama.

Third, as you suggest, domestic politics likely play a big role here. Many of Trump’s foreign policies and policy statements—including, yes, his tweets—are supported by his core supporters. He’s simply doing what his base wants. For instance, his base wants the wall built, think they’re being ripped off on trade deals by foreign nations, want a more aggressive approach to Islamic terrorism, demand US allies and friend to do more “burden sharing,” see climate change as either a hoax or something that’s been overly dramatized by liberals, and don’t see Russia, and Putin in particular, as enemies of the US. As a result, then, Trump has a domestic political incentive to move away, more or less, from certain Obama foreign policies.

Fourth, Trump seems to have an affinity for strongmen, for autocrats, and that’s moved US foreign policy away from prizing human rights and reform, which stands in contrast to the Obama years. At one time or another, he’s complimented or praised a wide array of foreign autocrats, including al-Sisi, Putin, Kim Jong Un, Erdogan, King Salman, Duterte, Xi Jinping, just to name but a few. Now, why is this the case? Perhaps it’s because his strategic thinking is in line with realpolitik, which coldly prioritizes national security interests above mushy-headed ideals. Maybe it’s because he sees the world’s autocrats as political brothers, with whom he shares similar political beliefs and instincts. Perhaps it’s because he has business interests in some authoritarian countries, and so he feels the need to cozy up to and flatter leaders there.

What say you, CWCP readers? Is Trump simply anti-Obama, or are there other things going on here? Let us know.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Trump Foreign Policy: Change or Not?



For last few weeks, there has considerable discussion in the US about whether there’s change afoot in President Donald Trump’s nascent foreign policy—specifically, whether he’s bending and shifting his so-called “America First” foreign policy more in line with traditional Republican foreign policy values and interests. Those who believe this is the case point to a slew of recent events and statements emanating from the Trump White House: the US air strikes and bombings in Syria and Afghanistan, Trump's public support for NATO, his administration's criticism of Russia, and a palpable de-escalation of tensions with China. In total, these moves may signal a foreign policy direction for Team Trump. But is it? And what’s really going on here?

Below CWCP President Dr. Brad Nelson and CWCP Vice President Dr. Yohanes Sulaiman offer their takes on these topics.

Yohanes Sulaiman

Trying to describe and explain Trump's foreign policy is basically, in my view, trying to answer whether structure or agency is more important. With regards to structural analysis, one could make a strong argument that Trump's recent moves toward "mainstream" GOP foreign policy is basically a result of structural push-back. For instance, in trying to unilaterally punish China economically, he found out that China supposedly holds the cards that might allow him to solve North Korea problem. Similarly, he is moving against Russia because that's the only way for him to deal with Syria problem. As a result, he ends up moving to conventional/mainstream GOP position.

That said, the agency part here is also important: whichever part of the globe Trump is focused on is based on Trump’s whims. And we can actually also make a strong argument that Trump's cajoling China or throwing missiles at Syria is a part of bargaining, in the sense that Trump remains unpredictable, outside the mainstream GOP policy, but he capitalizes on it, thus making moves that catch his domestic and foreign opponents off guard. Assad most likely didn't expect Trump to attack him due to Trump's perceived closeness with Russia. Similarly with North Korea, by dangling the carrot of economic cooperation and the stick of retaliation, Trump might be able to pressure China to actually do something about North Korea. This negotiating stance, which to borrow Nixon's term, the Madman theory, would be outside the GOP's mainstream position.

Brad Nelson

That's an interesting take. But it assumes that Trump's foreign policy really has changed in concrete, significant ways. I look at it this way: I separate Trump's foreign policy goals from his and his staff's statements and the actions taken/implemented by Team Trump. Regarding the latter, sure, there has been considerable shifts and turns since January. Indeed, we seen changes on this front from Trump himself, on NATO, Russia, intervention in Syria, his willingness to use force more generally, and so on. And there's been public pivots and mixed signals within Team Trump. Most notably, it seems as if almost every comment by Nikki Haley is contradicted Trump and his spokesman Sean Spicer.

But all the statements and actions by the White House are done in the service of some foreign policy goal or goals. That's the point of them; they're put out there or implemented to achieve certain outcomes. And so, in my mind, the bigger issue is whether Trump's foreign policy goals have changed in the last three months. On this matter, I'm not so sure. And this is what some hardcore Trumpites are currently arguing, in response to the prevailing view that Trump is forming foreign policy in a random, ad hoc manner. They believe his goals haven't changed at all, and that Trump is flexible in pursuing these goals. In other words, the words and tools used by the US vis-a-vis various global problems and issues might vary over time, but the overarching foreign policy goals will remain mostly the same. Sure, there is a self-serving, partisan aspect to this argument, but it also has some merit.

I think of the 59 missiles recently launched on Syria as one example. American pundits, commentators and analysts were breathlessly quick to proclaim this act a decisive shift in US foreign policy. After all, he campaigned on keeping the US out of needless foreign wars, especially the one in Syria, even going so far as to signal that he'd be willing to delegate the issue to Russia to solve. But additionally, US intervention in Syria up to that point had been solely directed against AQ and ISIS members and activities. So, in their view, the attack on Assad was something new and different--and also something good. This crowd loudly cheered the attack, seeing it as a just and proper punishment for Assad's use of chemical weapons, and something that was long overdue, since Obama walked back his infamous red line years ago.

Meantime, Trump did suffer a temporary blowback from a part of his base as a result of the attack on Syria. These folks started to worry that he'd betrayed them. Was he becoming a normalized GOPer? Were establishment GOPers getting the upper hand over Trump in their battle with outsiders like Steve Bannon? And where was the restrained foreign policy they voted for? Bombing Syria isn't American First, is it?

But in the end, much of this is massive hyperbole. A one-off, limited attack on Syria does not portend deeper US involvement in the war. And since the attack, US defense officials have declared that there aren't further plans to attack/oust Assad. Moreover, there's reason to wonder whether the attack was done solely with Assad in mind. At the time of the bombing, he was meeting with Xi Jinping at Trump's "Southern White House" in Florida, and so it's possible the timing of the attack purposeful: yes, to punish Assad, but also to send a signal to Xi that he's not a pushover, that he's a strong, decisive leader. Of course, there are other possible audiences as well. The North Korea problem has seemingly loomed larger over the last three months, with the Kim cabal and Trump and his staff publicly sparring. It's very possible that Trump hoped the Syria bombing got Kim's attention, serving notice that Kim ought not to test Trump. And lastly, because of a host of scandals and investigations, Trump has been battling low approval polls since the inauguration. It would not be a surprise if the hyper-sensitive Trump thought that bombing Assad would add a distraction into the news cycle and offer a brief rally around the flag effect for his benefit.

But let's get back to the discussion of Trump's foreign policy goals. It seems evident that Trump's main foreign policy goals center around a handful of projects: (1) improving relations with Russia and China, (2) combating terrorism, (3) reducing the threat of North Korea, and (4) bringing more, better jobs back to the US. Does anything that Team Trump has said or done over the last month or so undermine these goals? Not really, right? I mean, I'm not seeing much change on those fronts. The #MOAB was just dropped on ISIS tunnels in Afghanistan; more anti-terrorism troops have been sent to Syria; Trump's already vetoed the TPP, may open up NAFTA, and extracted some Chinese investments while Xi was in town. And Trump hasn’t backed off the notion that better US-Russia ties are a desirable goal.

Oh sure, some will point to the White House's more stringent comments on Russia's actions in Syria, in addition to Trump's statement that US-Russian relations are at a low point, as evidence that big policy changes are in the works. Perhaps, though I'm skeptical. With the hubbub surrounding Team Trump's possible collusion with Russia to win the election, Trump has an incentive to publicly distance himself from Russia. It's one of the paradoxical outcomes we may find going forward: while Trump campaigned on having good ties to Russia, and he may still want the US to have better ties with Russia, the election shenanigans and the subsequent investigations may well force him to pump the brakes on improving ties to Moscow and giving Russia the concessions it desires (lifting of sanctions, reduced support for NATO, etc.). But before we declare Trump's proposed outreach to Russia completely dead, we need more information. In particular, I'd like to know what what's being said behind the scenes: just because public rhetoric on Russia may be heating up a tad from Team Trump, that doesn't necessarily mean that's what's being communicated to Russia privately, away from the public's eyes and ears.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Trump and Russia


Picture credit: CNN

Reports on the connections between Trump/the people in his orbit and Russia continue to dog the White House. This is hardly a surprise, given that he’s made little attempt to publicly, exhaustively clarify his relationship with Russia; instead, he’s opted to dismiss reports as a “witch hunt.” But is it?

President Trump has traveled extensively to Russia, at a minimum, for his beauty pageants. In the past, he’s bragged about meeting and having a good relationship to Russian President Vladimir Putin, something he now denies. Trump’s sons have stated that the Russian market is vital to the growth of the Trump organization, even going so far as to say that “money is pouring in from Russia.” And, as we know, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is his unprovoked and consistently flattering, obsequious remarks about Russia and Putin; Trump’s been more than willing to defend Russia, even if that means he has to criticize and demonize past US presidents, the US media, America’s intelligence community and military, including its generals, in the process. Moreover, some of Trump's stated foreign policy positions--such as his willingness to hand the Middle East to Russia, his tepid support for NATO, his disinterest in Russia's annexation of Crimea, and his inclination to water down if not weaken US sanctions on Moscow--buck longstanding US strategy and are right in line with Russian interests. Indeed, if there’s one consistency in Trump’s chaotic presidency, it’s his blatant Russophilia.

But the smoke surrounding Trump isn’t simply limited to him; it also hovers over a number of Trump consiglieres. Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, Paul Manafort, JD Gordon, Jeff Sessions, Roger Stone, and Michael Cohen, among others, have been identified as communicating with a host of Russian figures--including the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kiselyak, close associates of Putin, Russian intelligence officers, and even Russian hackers--prior to Trump taking office this January. Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who, so far, hasn’t been pinpointed in any nefarious activities with Russia, has deep, friendly ties to Russia as former CEO of ExxonMobil. Indeed, in 2013, Tillerson was awarded the Order of Freedom—Russia’s highest honor for a foreign citizen--personally by Putin.

The links between folks on each side of the Washington-Moscow axis are said to possibly involve such things as business affairs, banking ties, diplomatic discussions, and, of course, the 2016 presidential election. At bottom, then, the manifold linkages and communications binding both sides together seem quite diverse and extensive.

Certainly, all of this begs a host of questions. Most notably, why do so many of Trump advisers, cabinet members, and surrogates have connections to Russia? Why have they repeatedly lied about or hid their ties to Russia? Why is Trump ostensibly a sycophant for Russia and its president? In short, what the heck is going on here?

Benign Events

Maybe the contacts and meetings with Russian figures were mostly innocent. For instance, it’s plausible that they were part of the normal prep for a future Trump administration. After all, that is what incoming administrations do with foreign nations and their diplomats: develop contacts, hold discussions, and get a feel of all of the involved parties. It’s also plausible that the Trump administration’s coziness with Russia is part of a larger strategic plan to woo Moscow for America’s interests. By developing good relations with Russia, so goes the logic, the US might be able to delegate the Syria problem to Moscow, gain a powerful anti-terrorism partner, and seduce a vital state to balance against a continued rising/aggressive China. If either or both are true, I can see how Team Trump could believe it has a political incentive to downplay, perhaps even mislead or lie, about its interactions and engagements with Russia, given the US domestic climate surrounding the Russian hacks and attempts to hijack the election. But if so, it’s gamble the team has made, and probably not a good one. For they’ve now manufactured a bad situation—a cover-up and resultant investigations and a dubious American public—to paper over eye-raising but mostly legal actions and maneuvers. Trump would have been far, far better off simply releasing his taxes and comprehensively detailing and explaining his and his team's relationship to Russia.

Nefarious Schemes 

But maybe Trump and his staff aren’t so innocent. Perhaps all the smoke surrounding the Trump administration is evidence of a truly 5-five alarm fire brewing inside the White House. The big fear among many Americans is that Trump and his staff are deliberately concealing and prevaricating about their interactions with Russia because they have something to hide—that they or Trump himself have done something illegal or something that would provoke widespread outrage in the US.

Yes, the major worry is that they’ve colluded with Russia to damage Hillary Clinton and boost Trump’s chances at winning the presidential election. In other words, Trump is a real life Manchurian Candidate, a foreign stooge swept into power by Moscow, ready and willing to do its bidding. This a conspiratorial view of Trump, to be sure, yet not particularly far-fetched, alas. Given what I’ve already written above about Trump and his staff, plus his public calls during the campaign season exhorting Russia and Wikileaks to damage the Clinton machine, all added on top of his narcissistic personality quirks, a treasonous act is something that just shouldn’t be dismissed.

But even if Trump’s not quite a foreign stooge, not entirely willing to embrace and implement Russian-favored policies and worldviews, there’s still the grave concern about his role in subverting America’s democracy. We already know that the election wasn’t exactly free and fair, given the Russia-Wikileaks collaboration, and that Clinton was likely, though not definitively, cheated out of winning the presidency. That in itself has tarnished the veneer of American democracy: we have to face the fact that foreign powers can manipulate and distort US elections. But if Trump directly or indirectly played a role in stealing the win, that’s something completely different. It’s an internal subversion of the main prized American democratic institution. And if this is the case, how can Americans trust that future candidates won’t act and behave similarly to Trump, willing to ignore and flout US norms and rules and laws? And if they can’t, the very fabric of democracy would be in jeopardy.

Another concern is that Trump has been compromised by Russian intelligence—whether because Trump has business interests and ties to shady Russian kleptocrats and mobsters, his purported lascivious activities, or something altogether different. Here, the logic, as you’d expect, is that Trump has placed himself in a position in which he has to cater to Putin’s policy interests and goals or risk being publicly exposed by a vengeful, savvy Putin. There’s long been unsubstantiated whispers about Trump’s willingness to do business with anyone or anything, no matter if laws are flouted or corruption is the coin of the game—and the recent reports of his business dealings with Azerbaijan, which may also involve Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, only adds credibility to the perception that Trump is more than willing to traffic in murky, dirty waters. Moreover, the 35 page “dossier,” compiled by a former British intelligence officer, outlining Trump’s nighttime activities with Russian prostitutes, has breathed even more life into the idea that Russian officials have substantial Kompromat on him.

If any of this is true, it would be a scandal of epic, unprecedented proportions in US political history. It would make former disgraced US President Richard Nixon seem merely paranoid and inept, hardly a big-time criminal. After all, Nixon’s misdeeds were a bungled attempt to glean information about the Democrats heading into the 1972 presidential election, an election that Nixon won overwhelmingly: he won the popular vote by roughly 18 million and won the electoral vote of 49 of 50 states. In the case of Trump, however, if he and his crew really collaborated with the Russians to win the election—a narrow win, mind you—he aided and abetted a foreign enemy power to breach and subvert the sovereignty of the US. He would be a traitor, subject to all the laws and punishments specified by the American Constitution.

What's Next? 

Right now, the easy thing to say is that we need a blue ribbon independent commission to investigate the election, Trump and his cabal, and the Russian hack. Yes, this type of investigation would be wonderful, as it would be a marked improvement over the current Congressional investigations dominated by the Trump-led GOP. But don’t hold your breath on that happening anytime soon.

Why? Well, keep the following things in mind. First, about 30-35 percent of voting Americans are solidly with Trump, with a smaller base of hardcore supporters willing to ride with Trump until the end. Congressional Republicans, especially those in red states, know this, which makes them hesitant to move strongly against Trump. Second, power dynamics are on Trump’s side. Look, the GOP dominates the House and Senate, which insulates Trump from the type of scrutiny he’d face if he was a Democratic president. Third, Barack Obama has been called the first social media president, but that’s not really true. Donald trump is, and he wields his Twitter and Facebook accounts to his advantage: he has already successfully created his own powerful political narrative, free of filters, which he propagates to millions of people (26+ million on Twitter, 21+ million on Facebook). He paints himself as the champion of the “little guy/gal,” an unfair victim of the “liberal media” and the "deep state," a can-do president with a mandate for real, substantial change, unlike the usual “all-talk” politician. But beyond this, social media have enabled Trump to form a personal connection to his followers, tightening his bond with them, which is an extremely useful political tool for Trump. Fourth, Trump employs an army of public relations folks, like Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who hold press conferences and make television appearances to spin Trump’s tweets and public statements for popular consumption. Fifth, Trump is aided by conservative and alt-right echo chambers that includes Fox News, Breitbart, and Infowars, among others. These outlets shout and scream Trump’s narrative (as put forth by Trump himself and spun by his PR professionals), entrenching it, allowing Trump’s base to wallow in their love for all things Trump and to share in their dislike for Trump’s domestic opponents.

So what we have, then, is a neat, tight feedback loop connecting Trump, his staff, Congressional GOPers, the various Trump media arms, and Trump’s base. All parts of this loop are highly motivated, ready to defend Trump and push back against any and all criminal and salacious allegations, obstructing the search for truth. So should we despair that illegal acts by Team Trump might go overlooked? Not exactly. 

Overall, it's a good thing that liberal activists are mobilized, organizing themselves, taking to the streets, and calling their Representatives and Senators--all in the name of truth and justice. It might not seem like much, but Trump, an incessant cable tv-watcher, is aware of these happenings. In fact, they've likely added to the panic that rogue White House staffers report on social media. Liberals need to continue to demand the truth, preparing themselves for a protracted struggle, but do so using only civil, non-violent means. It may seem obvious, but it needs to be said that violence only delegitimizes liberals and their causes and shifts the national discussion from the serious questions about the Trump administration to the extremism of anti-Trump activists. I also recommend that liberal activists begin the process of building formal bridges to independents and moderate/centrist Republicans, so as to ensure that getting to the bottom of #Russiagate isn't strictly a partisan endeavor. 

Additionally, we need journalists to continue to do the deep-digging research and reporting on the Trump and Russia affair. Perhaps these efforts, if more unsavory details are uncovered, will put enough pressure on Trump’s base, especially those who sit outside the hardcore supporters, to recognize that maybe Trump isn’t who they thought he was, which would give some GOPers the green light to move on Trump, if necessary. Or perhaps new information would give Republicans the requisite ammunition to convince a sizable chunk of Trump’s base that more stringent moves against Trump are the right thing to do.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

US Presidential Election: What Happened and Quick Predictions

So what happened in the election? Short answer: Middle America, the so-called flyover states, decided that the US (and probably the rest of world too) needed a swift kick in the butt. Calvin and Hobbes sum it up well, I think.


Yes, Hillary is probably the worst candidate that the Democrats could have nominated this election year. But that ignores the question of why Middle America is angry. As JD Vance noted in his book, Hillbilly Elegy, these folks are in a lot of pain. And worse, they are ignored, by a liberal political elite who fixates on identity politics and culture wars and belittles their concerns

Trump, in essence, is their outlet, their way to give the liberal elite a big middle finger. Do they really believe that Trump is going to build the wall and deport all immigrants? No, most of them don't. In Peter Thiel's words:

I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally. ... I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, their question is not, 'Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?' or, you know, 'How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?' What they hear is we're going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.

In short, Americans voted for a hyperbolic showman in order to shift the conversation to things that really matter to their lives. Whether they will achieve their goals is a huge question mark. Trump will have to face his biggest test: governing.

So what's next for the world?

I would argue that, Trump being Trump, he doesn't really care much about the American ideals of spreading democracy, improving human rights conditions in foreign nations, etc. In fact, I predict he will be both isolationist, in the sense that he won't attempt to expand American power abroad to protect human rights, and businesslike, in that he will solely focus on making deals. I know that this is cliche, but I think he will be Putin-like: he will be quite coldblooded in his foreign policy dealings, probably not dissimilar to pre-Carter US foreign policy.

While this may be outrageous to many people hoping to have the United States to maintain its ideals, Trump might actually drive a stronger and more effective foreign policy. But the key question is whether Trump has the discipline to do so. Plus, he needs to deal with skeptical leaders from all over the world, who wonder whether Trump is a showman who can actually deliver or just another snake-oil seller.

Many people, in the US and around the world, believe that he is unsuited to govern. Obama even declared that Trump is unfit to be the president of the United States. So in the end, it could very well be somewhat easy for him to prove his critics wrong because he has such a low bar to cross. Strange as it may sound, seeming only slightly sensible on governing issues is probably a big win for him politically.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Meaning and Fallout of Trump's Win

Photo: Dina Litovsky for TIME

Okay, I'm definitely not crazy about Trump being the next US president, but I'm also not creating an underground bunker or making plans to head to Canada. Mostly, I'm fascinated by it all. Here are few things that caught my attention. For now, I’m focusing my eye on the domestic political battles and fallout of yesterday’s vote. In future posts, I will discuss the foreign policy implications of a Trump presidency. 

1. I’m fascinated that the polls, pollsters, and forecasters got it so wrong. This is the latest in a string of faulty polls this year. Brexit, the Columbian-FARC referendum and now Trump’s election defied the polls, and all were major upsets on the magnitude of the Cubs winning the World Series and Leicester City winning last season’s Premier League. In fact, 2016 seems to be the year of the upset, of the unlikely actually happening.

2. The US elected its second consecutive political unknown. Barack Obama was so inexperienced and so unfamiliar to many Americans when he started his campaign in 2007, yet he climbed Mount Clinton and McCain to the White House. Trump has followed in these footsteps. It might sound strange, perhaps, to say that Trump is an unknown figure. After all, Trump, as a personality, is well-known, and he's said crazy, highly-publicized things, but he’s a political neophyte, much more so than Obama. Plus, what does he really think and believe? He's taken many sides on a number of issues; plus, he was a liberal Democrat as of just a few years ago. So what are his political beliefs? I’m really not sure, and I suspect many Trump supporters, if they answered honestly, would say the same. For instance, this is one comment I hear repeatedly from Trump folks: All the crazy stuff Trump says? He doesn’t mean it. It’s just for entertainment purposes. Perhaps, but that’s pure speculation.

3. Additionally, there's a "kiss the ring" aspect now to GOP politics. Trump won, and he's now in a position to exact revenge on those Republicans and Conservatives--elected officials, party leaders, donors, conservative thinkers and writers—who distanced themselves from or came out against him, unless they pledge fealty to Trump. How will Trump the Godfather play his hand?

4. There’s also the huge shift in the dominant narrative of the Democratic Party. In a matter of hours, the predicted huge, lightning win for the Clinton juggernaut has quickly morphed into elegies about a Democratic party in tatters. That’s too alarmist for my taste. Still, the question about the impact of Trump’s rise on the Democratic Party is an interesting one that will unfold over the next few years. Furthermore, Democrats will have to think long and hard about how to shore up their weak areas of support: white folks, especially white men, members of the military, citizens without a college degree, the 40 and over crowd, and Christians, among others. 

5. And then we have the drama about the Trump-Clinton legal battle that has yet to be settled. Will he indeed set up an investigation into all of Clinton’s dealings and correspondence, as he publicly suggested in one of the debates? Or will he scuttle that idea, content with the fact he won the presidency. Congressional Republicans, in general, do not want Clinton investigations, for fear of political overreach. But at the same time, many of Trump’s base of support want her political blood. They’ve feared her for 30 years and see her as the enemy, no different than al-Qaeda or ISIS or North Korea. Thus far, throughout the campaign season, Trump has eschewed political convention and catered to his base. Will he continue that modus operandi as president?

6. Lastly, keep in mind that Trumpism is real and can’t be wished or hoped away. And it’s not just a set of thoughts and beliefs of a “basket of deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton stated. So what is it? What is Trumpism?

It’s a 21st century American form of populism. It includes a fear of change, of immigrants and Americans of color transforming the US into looking and feeling differently and troubled. It believes that ordinary citizens are getting ripped off by elites, in Washington, Beijing and elsewhere. It perceives that leaders in Washington don’t listen to or care about ordinary citizens, at all—that there’s way too much neglect about lost factory and manufacturing jobs, too little focus on job retraining, not enough attention to drugs and violence in cities, among other things. And there’s widespread worry that folks can’t move up in the world, that the doors to a better life are locked and they can’t get in. And these doors are locked by the greedy, nepotistic, and corrupt—all of whom are hoarding economic and political power for their selfish professional and personal gain. Viewed though this prism, Trump voters see themselves living in a purportedly free society, yet it feels, in very tangible ways, like elite-imposed imprisonment.

7. Will Trump get eaten by his own monster, his own creation? What happens when Trump, as is inevitably the case, disappoints his base? Do they stick with them? And are they just as enthusiastic about him in a year or two down the road? Or do they abandon him? Specifically, what happens to Trump’s political fortunes if dismantling Obamacare and building his proposed wall prove to be much tougher than he promised? This is something to consider, as 2018 and another round of elections isn’t that far away. Put simply, Trump’s rise could very well lead to a Trump backlash, paving the way for the Democrats to retake Congress in 2018. 

A quick look back at Obama’s first term is instructive here. The hope and joy on the left for Obama’s ascent quickly gave way to apathy and disappointment by 2010. Obama's planned domestic upgrades either weren't happening or weren't happening fast enough, for Republicans and Conservatives, certainly, but also, for his political base on the left as well: wages weren't rising, jobs weren't coming back, Obamacare wasn't a panacea, the financial stimulus was increasingly unpopular, the debt kept rising, and so on. And in the 2010 elections, with an unmotivated liberal base failing to turn out in the same numbers as in 2008, Republicans gained six Senate seats and 63 House seats, one of the worst showings for an incumbent party in 60 plus years. 

Even though he's not yet in office, Trump is already on the clock. How he handles himself publicly, how he deals with both parties, who he puts in his cabinet, and the fleshed-out contents of his policies will shape and influence his political standing and power going forward, from this moment on. It’s up to him to wisely spend or waste his political power.

8. What I am most concerned about is that, throughout his campaign for the presidency, Trump has catered and cozied up to the white nationalist crowd. And this crowd sees Trump as one of them. Combined, we now have an environment in America in which KKK-types feel emboldened to do and say reprehensible things. Already, since Wednesday morning, when the the election results became clear, there have been a number of racist, hateful acts committed by Trump-inspired thugs and goons, who have targeted women, blacks, Latinos(as), Muslims, and so on. The activist and social media maven Shaun King has done a good job documenting the growing number of hate crimes and acts.

Trump needs to get on top of this wave of hate, and fast. He must not only distance himself and his incoming administration from the racists and xenophobes, he must condemn them and their words and deeds. If he really wants to govern for all Americans, as he has said, then this is something he has to do.

9. I would like to end on a positive note. At this point, I'm not overly alarmed about Trump the policymaker. Sure, he's proposed some kooky and at times offensive domestic and foreign policies. And, yes, his administration will likely employ some goofs and no-nothings. Names like Ben Carson, Sarah Palin, Corey Lewandowski and John Bolton--rumored candidates for spots in a Trump government--hardly inspire confidence. In fact, on Sunday, Trump announced that Steve Bannon, head of Breitbart and conspiracy theory propagandist, will serve as his Chief Strategist and the constantly befuddled RNC Chairman Reince Priebus as his Chief of Staff. That doesn't sound good, certainly, but there is a silver lining.

The US possesses strong and durable domestic political institutions as well as a host of highly motivated oppositional actors, and these forces will look to circumscribe Trump's power and block any and all of Trump's most harmful policies. In fact, the protesters in the streets in several cities already have put Trump on notice of this very fact. Together, by Constitutional design, they can work to channel Trump away from his worst instincts and into a more productive direction. If anything, rather than impending fascism and strongman rule--which are concerns of leftists and "Never Trumpers" on the right--I see continued, and perhaps even heightened, political and policy gridlock and paralysis.

So, to those who lament a Trump presidency and the demise of American democracy, all is not lost; work hard and keep up the fight for what you believe in. To the Trump supporters, be happy. Your preferred candidate won. I hope Trump goes to bat for you and your interests and makes your lives better, more enriched. And to all Americans, after such a tough, vitriolic campaign season, I hope we all can remain calm and reasonable, more willing to listen and understand the beliefs and attitudes of those across the political aisle, and better able to find common ground on important issues of the day. And just remember, like President Obama said Thursday, if Trump succeeds as president, America also succeeds. Those are good words to keep in mind.